Metal and darkness have been enthusiastic partners since the very moment “Black Sabbath” first lifted from a speaker. Consequently, the near half-century that’s followed has found our genre exploring every facet of light’s mortal enemy—from violence to war to disease to madness to vice to prejudice to depression to death, and, of course, all varying degrees of evil spanning the general to to the specific, plus every manner of related darkness found in-between. Some bands and listeners use the music to sanctify darkness because they are loyal servants to the Galactic Empire, while others use it for more cathartic purposes. Boss too far up in your business? “I hate your rules / I hate ‘em all / hate being marked to take the fall…”
Death—to single out the ultimate in extreme darkness—has proven itself a commendable and particularly metal topic for endless exploration. Our species has been obsessed with it since the first day we climbed from the primordial ooze, and it’s one of the few things that relates every living thing under a single umbrella. Everything that lives will die. Period. In order to come to terms with the grimness of that truth, we can’t help but force a level of detachment, or at least, tie some level of humor to death’s bigger picture. Thus, we actively chase slasher flicks and can’t help but laugh when the bodycount on a Cannibal Corpse record breaks through the rafters. Life becomes all the more difficult to live if you can’t find some level of absurdity in its opposite.
LA’s Witherfall, on the other hand, take a related experience involving the passing of their dear friend Adam Paul Sagan—the band’s original drummer who succumbed to lymphoma in 2016 during the final stages of production for their debut—and fully embrace darkness in a way that allows very little light perforation. A significant portion of their sophomore release is directly related to that experience, and even the songs that aren’t part of the “Sagan Suite” are leavened with related themes dealing with the scarcity of time and life’s myriad of futilities. Consequently, A Prelude to Sorrow (an “Adam Paul Sagan” acronym) isn’t exactly the easiest listen, even when compared to an already dark debut in Nocturnes and Requiems.
Where the first record managed to hook the listener in enough ways to keep the band’s version of Nevermore-inspired aggressive / progressive metal tied to some form of classic U.S. power (admittedly, rather loosely), album number two pretty much does away with all things power-related in favor of a formula that’s more hefty, knotty and…well, pessimistic. Not completely devoid of hope, thankfully, as evidenced by the invigorating way the 11-minute “Vintage” kicks off the record’s grand conclusion. The song is just as somber and gray and dense as the tracks that precede it, but following a midpoint that swirls with a noticeably blunt anger, a sudden and pronounced lift at the 7-minute mark arrives via a consenting “Travel on, my friend / your story forever told / you’ll always be by my side / when I feel like I can’t go on,” quickly followed by the album’s longest, most epic lead that provides considerable reprieve and grace. It’s an exceedingly emotional juncture deep in the record, and it’s also a wonderful representation of that brutal crossroads that exists where “letting go” and “drifting away” finally meet and the heart feels as if it might burst.
The remainder of the material delves into all manner of emotions that can end up tangled around a general theme that involves mortality and a dearth of time. Principle songwriters Jake Dreyer (guitars) and Joseph Michael (vocals, keyboards) spent the better part of two years writing the record, and they created much of it in the midst of regular visits to the hospital to be by Sagan’s side. Accordingly, songs such as “Moment of Silence” and “Shadows” push harder on the aggressive side of things, because fear and anger and courage hang heavy in a hospital room where cancer looms, and those emotions are best represented through weight, speed and a sense of relentlessness. Driving forces such as these also flourish in the album’s true opening track, the brilliant “We Are Nothing,” which dominates as the other 11-minute epic on the opposite end of “Vintage,” and features an obscenely heavy moment around the 8:30 mark that becomes even darker and slower and heavier as the song continues to lurch forward. Potency with an emphasis on shade, just like the album artwork delivered once again by metal’s close friend, Necrolord.
There are plenty of quiet moments here as well—pensive bits spent simply “being” and reflecting on time’s cruel diminutiveness. Stretches inside “Communion of the Wicked” and “Ode to Despair” find Dreyer incorporating tastes of beautiful Flamenco into his fretwork, which, when combined with the spectral aspect of Michael’s lofty voice and much of the record’s other King Diamond embroidery, make it evident that Andy LaRocque is as much an influence on his playing as is Loomis, Matheos, Gilmour (4:00 into “We Are Nothing”) and Chuck Schuldiner. Indeed, Dreyer’s work from start to finish is nothing short of sensational—the leads here are elaborate and crafted from stainless steel, and the sheer amount of riffs in these 57-minutes is damn-near overwhelming. Also worthy of mention: a good set of headphones will take A Prelude to Sorrow even further, as this gives a much better opportunity to hear Anthony Crawford’s bass, which is just as busy as Dreyer’s work and crucial to the record’s overall weight.
The entire experience isn’t terribly “immediate.” While there are certainly things that are immediately likable, the overall design and frame of mind don’t really lend themselves to a quick & easy listen. This is thorny and bleak progressive metal that showcases a great deal of talent from every player, but it also feels deliberately challenging at times, which is understandable. Joseph Michael’s vocals, for example, are fantastic—often forceful and regularly delicate without frailty—but a sense of tension is never too far away. That sort of madness might shake a few off the trail, but frenzy and varying degrees of vulnerability such as this most certainly exist in a world where one is forced to witness a loved one pass. Thankfully, all the melody steeped into the corners helps to alleviate the blanketing dismay.
So where does the story end? Beyond the regrettable passing of Adam Paul Sagan, the assumption (without a full lyric sheet in hand) is that the epic manner in which “Vintage” eventually drifts into the quiet epilogue attains a sense of cathartic acceptance that our eternity is ultimately unknown. Whether you happen to be religious, irreligious or anything in-between, we simply have no proof of whether or not we’re destined to simply cease or eventually be carried down the River Styx. Therefore, respect the unknown. Embrace it and live your life according to how you hope things will end. And sure, it’s probably not the worst idea to pack a couple extra coins just in case Charon is the last face you end up seeing.
It is the very nature of life to eventually force profound experiences with death, and time is the cruel shadow that governs that end. If you’re interested in an album that paints a remarkable picture of such an ordeal, A Prelude to Sorrow is quite willing to take your hand.
Rest in peace, Adam Sagan.